After Practical Cats, a reader asked me to summarize my Cleopatra theory as it pertains to Catwoman. With shooting under way on The Dark Knight Rises, and Batman circles abuzz with speculation on what Christopher Nolan’s take will be, it seemed the perfect time.
Briefly: Cleopatra lived and died over 2,000 years ago, and what’s known about her life hasn’t changed. There is the sensational Roman account, juicy but questionable material dating from a propaganda war with Augustus Caesar, and a drier but more flattering picture of her political accomplishments recorded by the historian Flavius Josephus. That’s it. It’s not like any new unauthorized biographies were unearthed in the 1300s, 1500s, or 1800s to account for the drastically differing images of her. There is only one set of facts from which different ages have formed completely different Cleopatras: from “The Nile Slut” to a childlike innocent, from a murderous man-eater to a savvy politician, from a devoted mother to a tragic “slave to love.” Obviously, they can’t all be right. Obviously, what each era chooses to focus on—and what it chooses to ignore—says more about them than it does the real Cleopatra.
Lucy Hughes-Hallett’s fascinating Cleopatra: Histories, Dreams and Distortions does a remarkable job analyzing each of these incarnations and what they reveal about the eras which romanticized and vilified her. Not surprisingly, it is the spin each age puts on the sexual aspects of her story that is most telling about their attitudes about women in general, and women’s sexuality in particular.
Like Cleopatra, Catwoman is a sex symbol who has spanned many generations and gone through many incarnations. From her first appearance in Batman #1, the draw between male and female has always been the distinguishing feature of Bat/Cat encounters. Tame and subtextual under the early comics code: Batman saw through Catwoman’s disguise in that first appearance by noticing her shapely legs. Amusingly brazen by the time Julie Newmar donned her claws and Adam West’s Batman declared, “You give me curious stirrings in my utility belt.”
Of course there is more to Catwoman’s appeal that the physical. You can’t throw a batarang in mainstream comics without hitting a beautiful and voluptuous woman. What made Catwoman particularly well-suited to the role as the Batman’s romantic foil was her playful free-spirited disposition. In an era that was finally acknowledging that sex is fun, the Bat/Cat titillation reached its zenith in Batman #324 when Selina awoke naked in the Batcave after her costume had been torn to pieces. Batman tosses her a replacement saying she was lucky he’d kept one of her old costumes in his trophy room, and she responds—just barely covering herself with the sheet—that she “got lucky in more ways than one.”
Approved by the Comics Code. And that’s probably what made it so much fun: the tingle of being bad, of getting away with something a little naughty. It is the appeal of Catwoman, and in scenes like that, the reader got a taste.
And therein lies one of the essential elements of a successful Catwoman portrayal that has often eluded DC Comics. We can make a simple comparison of the merchandise dating from Denny O’Neil’s day as Bat editor, where it seemed to be a mandate that her features be distorted by a hostile snarl, to the turning point when a Japanese company, Yamoto Toys, released a limited edition figurine based on manga artist Kia Asamiya’s design. The sexy come-hither pose and naughty grin sold out in days in many U.S. comic shops and was voted Sexiest Batman-related Action Figure by Wizard’s Toy Fare magazine. After a second equally successful figurine from Yamoto, again featuring the Jim Balent costume with an appealing pose and smile, DC appears to have got the message. Recent offerings of the Balent costume from DC Direct have certainly featured an attractive pose and naughty grin.